Violinist Elmar Oliveira Has Gone from the Pits of Broadway to the Top U.s. Concert Stages

UPDATED 07/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

When Elmar Oliveira stepped backstage after a triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall last spring, he was hailed by premier violinists Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman and hugged by scores of admirers. Then he was whisked off to a cafe to receive a citation from a Portuguese airline before rushing to two parties in his honor. "It was terrible—like he was a rock star instead of a violinist," says Oliveira's girlfriend, Sandy Robbins.

In the world of classical music, Oliveira enjoys a unique reputation, largely on the strength of winning a gold medal in violin at the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. He is the only non-Russian ever to do so, and it transformed the 29-year-old into a hot capitalist property. Elmar, who had played in the orchestra pits of such Broadway shows as Applause and was once reduced to playing for the sound tracks of porno movies, is now turning down some concert dates. In the last year his bookings have tripled. This summer he will perform at five music festivals, with the Baltimore and Dallas Symphonies and the Minnesota Orchestra. His fee for such appearances has doubled to $4,000.

Oliveira's playing is considered lyrical and dramatic. One of his former teachers, Ariana Bronne, says, "There is a pathos, a gaiety, a sadness. He can create little magic moments." Oliveira is attractively modest: "I have learned a lot from many violinists—Efrem Zimbalist, Jascha Heifetz—all the great fiddle players."

The boom in Oliveira's career has meant a decidedly less austere lifestyle. Pre-Moscow, he and Sandy, a violist, rented a modest $150-a-month house in Binghamton, N.Y., where he moved five years ago to teach. They drove a jalopy and earned extra cash selling antiques and secondhand instruments he'd repaired. Now they cruise in their "Tchaikovskymobile" (a black Cougar on expense-free loan for a year from an admiring local dealer). They have bought a $62,000, three-bedroom split-level house on an acre of wooded land in nearby Vestal to share with their four felines. "The cats," says Sandy, "know not to walk on Elmar's violins," including the one he favors for performances, a $300,000 Stradivarius lent to him by a Chicago amateur violinist.

Sandy, 30, has been the steady woman in Elmar's life since 1973. "I owe everything to her," he says. "When we met at the Manhattan School of Music, I was just floating around. She made me stick to my decisions and my work."

The son of Portuguese immigrants, Oliveira began playing at 4 (the theme from Dragnet) with a half-size violin held between his knees. By 9 he was taking lessons from older brother John, now a first violinist with the Houston Symphony. At 14 Elmar debuted with the Hartford Symphony and at 16 played with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. In 1975 he won two major music competitions: the Dealey Award and the Naumburg. He and Sandy retreated upstate from Manhattan when Oliveira was offered a job at the State University in Genesee. "I loved it so much," he says, "I decided to stay."

His sudden success has made him acutely conscious of how lucky he is. "There are a lot of people working for Broadway orchestras," he says, "who know how to play exceptionally well, but no one has ever heard of them. That fact is very humbling. It takes away your illusions."

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